Culture and Climate: Getting the Social Science Right for Change

Science is standing in the way of action for climate change-but maybe not the way you think.  In his latest book, How Culture Shapes the Climate Change Debate, Andrew Hoffman, Ph.D.  makes the case that it is not a lack of physical nor biological science preventing concerted action in combatting climate change, but social science.  It turns out the “soft” stuff is the “hard” stuff. Again.

Hoffman asserts there is scientific consensus that the global climate is changing and that humans, in part, are causing it. He demonstrates that point in several ways, including reports from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, endorsed by nearly 200 scientific agencies around the world including the scientific agencies of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, United Kingdom and the United States.

However, there is no social consensus on climate change. Couple that with a demonstrable political divide and what we have is gridlock. Hoffman notes, “The challenge in improving the form of public and political debate is not simply scientific in nature; at this stage it is as much about the communication of science as it is about the science itself.”

Hoffman isn’t arguing for less scientific research, but he is making a broad call to recognize that it is insufficient. At its heart, the great divide is the product of contrasting, deeply entrenched worldviews, through which that science is viewed.  In his book, he calls for a holistic approach.  This includes understanding the “cultural schism before us” and the organized movements which seek to resist change, including the role of media.  Most interestingly, he gleans lessons from two examples of significant historical cultural change. Hoffman examines the debate over cigarette smoking and cancer, which was also marked by a strong difference between scientific consensus and social consensus.  The second analogy is the debate over the abolition of slavery, as a way to demonstrate the sheer magnitude of the cultural shift required to deal with climate change.

The key point is this: the gulf we face with regards to positive movement with regards to climate change cannot be overcome with simple logic or more scientific evidence. We cannot beat—by words or deed—people into changing their point of view. “Trust is the subtext you will read throughout the book.  Before asking people to consider changing their worldview, you must begin by gaining their trust.”

The following is an excerpt of the book.

Climate change has been transformed into a rhetorical contest more akin to the spectacle of a sports match, pitting one side against the other with the goal of victory through the cynical use of politics, fear, distrust and intolerance. No wonder the public is confused.  But how did an issue like climate change become so toxic, so caught up in what we call the culture wars? Why has it joined sex, religion, and politics an issue people try not to discuss in polite conversation?

Social scientists view the public understanding of climate change not as a lack of adequate information but as the intentional or unintentional avoidance of that information.  That avoidance is rooted in our culture and psychology and can be summarized in four central points.

We all use cognitive filters. While physical scientists explore the mechanics and implications of a changing climate, the social scientist explores the cultural and cognitive reasons why people support or reject their conclusions.  What social scientists find is that physical scientists do not have the final word in public debate.  Instead, we interpret and validate conclusions from the scientific community by filtering their statements through our own worldviews.  Through what is called motivated reasoning, we relate climate change through our prior ideological preferences, personal experiences, and knowledge.  We search for information and reach conclusions about highly complex and politically contested issues in a way that will lead us to find supportive evidence of our preexisting beliefs.

Our cognitive filters reflect our culture identity. We tend to develop worldviews that are consistent with the values held by others within the groups with which we self-identify.  In what Yale University lawn and psychology professor Dan Kahan calls cultural cognition, we are influence by group values and will generally endorse the position that most directly reinforces the connections we have with others in our social groups.  It is not necessarily that we reject scientific conclusions in this process, but that they are weighted and valued differently depending on how our friends, colleagues, trusted sources, or respected leaders value and frame these issues.  We are the product of our surroundings (both chosen and unchosen) and gravitate towards opinions that fit with those of the people with whom we identify.  As such, positions on topical and controversial issues like climate change become part of our cultural identity.

Cultural identity can overpower scientific reasoning. When belief or disbelief in climate change becomes connected to our cultural identity, contrary scientific evidence can actually make us more resolute in resisting conclusions that are at variance with our cultural beliefs.  Research by sociologists Aaron McCright from Michigan State University and Riley Dunlap from Oklahoma State University found that increased education and self-reported understanding of climate science corresponds with greater concern among those who already believe in climate change  but less concern among those who do not.  Kahan and colleagues have found that “members of the public with the highest degrees of science literacy and technical reason capacity…were the ones among whom cultural polarization was greatest.” In short, increased knowledge tends to strengthen our position on climate change, regardless of what that position is. Instead, the key to engaging the debate is addressing the deeper ideological, cultural and social filters that are triggered by this issue.

Our political economy creates inertia for change. We cannot discuss the social processes that guide our thinking without also considering the economic, political, and technological realities that are both the enactment of our values and a source of inertia to changing them.  First, there is a vast physical infrastructure around fossil fuels and the lifestyle they create, which cannot be replaced easily.  Second, there are strong economic and political interests that are threatened by the issue of climate change (many of them controlling the infrastructure just mentioned).  As a result they have adopted strategies to confuse and polarize the debate in order to protect their interests.  Efforts to change cultural views on climate change must include changing the vast institutions and infrastructure of our economy and must be prepared to deal with resistance from those who benefit from them.

These four points form the central thesis of this book. The debate over climate change in the United States (and elsewhere) is not about carbon dioxide and greenhouse gas models; it is about opposing cultural values and worldviews through which that science is seen.  Those cultural values create a pattern of shared basic assumptions that tell us the correct way to perceive, think and feel in relation to problems and situations we face.  They furnish us with the guidelines for practical action, providing us with a road map, if you will, a way of understanding how the world works, how it ought to work, and how we behave within it.  As a result, when different groups view the same science through opposing cultural lenses, they see something very different.

Battle lines drawn, the social debate around climate change is now devolving into a “cultural schism” in which opposing sides do not debate the same issues, seek only information that supports their position or disconfirms the other’s and begin to demonize those who disagree with them.  With time, our positions become relatively rigid and exclusive, thickening the boundaries between cultural communities.  In essence, we begin to identify the members of our group (or tribe), and therefore those whom we trust, on the basis of their position on specific issues, like climate change. In his book, The Honest Broker, Roger Pielke Jr., professor of environmental studies at the University of Colorado, compares the extremes of such schisms to “abortion politics,” where those opposing abortion frame it as an issue of “life,” those favoring as an issue of woman’s “choice,” and where each side invokes broader logics around religion, family, and freedom to support its views.  With time, Pielke warns, “no amount of scientific information…can reconcile the different values.” Extreme positions dominate the conversation, the potential for discussion or resolution disintegrates, and the issue become intractable.

This book seeks to avert this outcome by calling attention to its reality, to the process that that make it happen, and to the tactics that can be used to change the discourse.

About Andrew Hoffman Andrew J. Hoffman is the Holcim (US) Professor of Sustainable Enterprise at the University of Michigan; a position that holds joint appointments at the Stephen M. Ross School of Business and the School of Natural Resources & Environment. He is the Director of the Erb Institute and the incoming Director of Education at the Graham Sustainability Institute at the University of Michigan. His extensive research uses a sociological perspective to understand the cultural and institutional aspects of environmental issues for organizations.  He has published over one-hundred articles/book chapters and twelve books. For more information see:

Excerpt printed with permission from Stanford University Press. (c) 2015 by the Board of Trust of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Jr. University. All rights reserved.
Laura Asiala

Laura Asiala

Laura Asiala is the Vice President, Public Affairs at PYXERA Global. Passionate about the power of business to solve—or help solve—the world’s most intransigent problems, she leads the efforts to attract more participation of businesses to contribute to sustainable development through their people and their work. She also serves on the Board of Directors for Net Impact, a community of more than 40,000 student and professional leaders creating positive social and environmental change in the workplace.

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